Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Review

I’ll just come out and say it: I hesitantly, reluctantly claim that Skyward Sword is the best Legend of Zelda game ever. I understand that’s a bold claim, but I’m more than willing to back it up. This is a really damn good and creative game, but no game is perfect and let the record show that Skyward Sword most certainly is not. 

I was genuinely surprised at how the Wii controls were. Yes, it’s fun and no it will not force you to inadvertently have a work out every time you play like Wii Sports. The nunchuck’s control stick controls Link’s movements and the Wiimote controls sword swings. Most enemies are designed to be attacked horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. One of my favorite aspects of this game is the increased challenge of any given fight. Before you simply hit an enemy enough times in the right place and they die. Here, standard monsters like Bokoblins can actually block your attacks on a regular basis. For casual players this could make the early stages of the game frustrating as they get used to the controls and the monsters don’t take long to kill you if you mess up. But for a long-time fan it is such a pleasant surprise to actually feel tension and not be completely sure if I’ll come out of certain battles alive. Combat does get a lot easier as the game progresses but during later bosses it remains reasonably challenging.
Link’s shield has also been given a huge upgrade. While the shield can actually block almost every attack, there’s a new durability meter. Every time you block it takes damage and will eventually break. There are also different types of shields, with varying vulnerabilities and resistances to fire and electricity, and even one that regenerates durability. Also, the Hylian Shield has been made into a super awesome invincible shield that is unlocked by playing a boss rush minigame.
There’s also a Stamina Gauge, which allows Link to move faster and more creatively than before but slowly drains away when used. When it runs out Link needs to severely slow all movements and take a breather for about a second or two. It allows Link to run fast, while without it he runs at the regular speed he always has in other games. Some people have called it annoying but I say it adds a very reasonable gameplay mechanic. I take it as another minor challenge that adds a bit of tension.
The worst gameplay aspect is definitely flight controls on Link’s Crimson Loftwing, a big crimson bird the beginning of the game really tries to build up as a big deal to the story, yet not a single important thing ever concerns any Loftwing once you meet Fi. The game didn’t do a very good job explaining flying and up until the middle of the game I was making motions with both the Wiimote and the nunchuck together, when in actuality it only concerns how the Wiimote is tilted and doesn’t react to any motions. People say the boat from Wind Waker was bad, but you could at least maximize your speed and I attributed slow progress to the massiveness of the sea (which added some appreciated subtle story elements, but I’ll spare you the ramble). With the flying, no amount of wrestling with the stupid controls will make you go any reasonable speed. It’s tedious and frustrating, completely ruining all majesty the game was trying to build. Even worse yet are the “falling” controls where Link has to direct himself so that he lands in certain places, which even as of the end of game, I still found impossible to fully control. Yeah, I’d prefer the boat, thank you.
            The game doesn’t waste your time by giving you items you’ll only use in one dungeon and feels like a full arsenal. The slingshot is actually useful for a long time because you only get the bow very late in the game and even then the slingshot is still used for close-range shooting. The bomb bag actually lets you take bombs from bomb flowers making them virtually free, but your bags can only carry 10. My personal favorite has got to be the Beetle. I almost don’t even care that the Beetle is technologically illogical and impossible because it is that awesome (almost). Upgrading it to the max allows it to carry items like bombs, have a special speed up boost feature, and increases the flight time. If a bomb flower is near, it is extremely satisfying to blow up an enemy by flying it into them. Better yet, I often used it to recon the area to help me figure out how to solve puzzles in the room. I really wish they used it more.
Though they added a bit more variety of potions, I found I only used the heart and guardian potions, and I only used the latter during the final boss fight. When upgraded, the guardian potion grants invincibility for a full three minutes, and it lasts even longer when you have the potion medal.  How long is that exactly? Well, more than enough to beat the final boss, rendering all complexity they added to that fight sort of pointless. Shame, it really did seem reasonably challenging. The heart potion normally restores 8 hearts, and when upgraded once it restore all hearts and upgraded twice allows you to have two servings of it in one bottle, which makes it a must-have during the tough fights.
Across the land are treasures that can be collected like monster claws, feathers, skulls, tails, and gems. When you have enough you can use them to upgrade your items to make them more useful. Upgrades include increased stats like damage, shield durability, effect duration, carry space for ammo bags and so forth. Admittedly, I thought there would be more possibilities for upgrades, perhaps to the sword. But it did take a long time to upgrade everything. Though you can grind for upgrades, there is no need to do so unless you want to get them as early as possible.
Rupees are actually somewhat scarce and my wallet was never filled. And holy hell, there are actually things left to buy that I can’t afford. At long last they have finally fixed such a glaring currency imbalance! Oh, except for the last stages of the game when you’re suddenly rolling in the stuff like always and once again have nothing to buy. The game did such a great job at keeping you poor and wanting then suddenly out of nowhere giving you lots of money and nothing to buy that I barely even realized the transition.

            I should also warn you of a terrible game-breaking glitch in case you haven’t been informed of it yet. Basically, there’s a part where you need to seek three dragons (and the fire dragon in the fire volcano in a game claiming to be the prequel to Ocarina of Time is unfortunately NOT Volvagia to my infinite disappointment and rage). I’ll keep it short but if you seek out the Thunder Dragon first and talk to the Goron in the area, the npcs in the game will be locked and not allow you to progress the story any further and if you save with the game like this, you need to start a new save file all over again. This is made more serious when players want to take the Thunder Dragon’s boss rush to get the Hylian Shield as early as they can, attempting to skip the other two dragons. Yeah, whoops Nintendo.

Shortly after releasing this review, I checked the Wii’s Shop Channel on a whim (after all, it’s not like something good frequently shows up there) and noticed they have indeed released a completely free Wii Channel providing a fix for the game-breaking glitch I mentioned earlier. This is a good, acceptable solution. I hate to sound hard to please, but I can’t help but think that if this were an Xbox 360 game they could just release a simple patch when people put the game in. Well, it’s a fix nonetheless.  /EDIT

            The graphics were a mixed bag. The overall style and art direction were good and didn’t really have any problems, but there are a few issues with character design. When it comes to monsters, they don’t look threatening, but because of the increased challenge it evens out. I thought Ghirahim looked ridiculous as a villain, but he really made up for it through his actions and dialogue. But on the bright side, the final boss looked really badass, minor characters like Pipit and Zelda’s father came off as cool, and when Eldin Volcano started to change during the last part of the game, it looked really grim and dark. But then there’s stupid crap like the Kikwis, the robots, and Skyward Sword’s awful version of dragons. If you’re making a game that’s trying to be taken seriously and your dragon designs are getting out-badassed by monsters from Avatar: The Last Airbender then you are lame. Fans want more Volvagia, so take notes from Skyrim, Nintendo.
There is one problem with the graphics that is huge and glaring. It’s those blotchy loose white pixels that keep appearing on the screen. Skyward Sword is the only game I’ve noticed it on, and I’ve looked around for some answers and it might actually be my Wii’s GPU, as lot of other people are having the same problems. It really brought down the overall quality because the whole time I thought it was Nintendo being incredibly lazy not double-checking their work. Reminded me a little bit of what Assassin’s Creed does intentionally. I sometimes imagined that Twilight Princess’ Link was hooked into the Animus and was reliving the memories of his ancestors. Anyway, I went to Gamestop, took back my game and exchanged it for another used one and it’s the same thing, so it’s a problem that’s probably in a lot of the older Wii consoles. I hear it might be from keeping Wiiconnect24 on, FYI.
The dungeons overall just come across as bland, unfortunately. Yes, there are somewhat challenging puzzles. Yes the monsters and combat are always fun, but as far as the overall design of them, there’s just not much more to them. I was particularly underwhelmed by the Eldin dungeons. The second overall dungeon obviously has a fire theme, yet they call it the Earth Temple and in the same area there is also Fire Sanctuary which is almost indistinguishable from Earth Temple in terms of visual style and design. The best dungeons are in the Lanayru Desert areas, such as the Mining Facility/3rd Dungeon and the Sandship. The absolute coolest parts of these are the Timeshift Stones. By turning them on and off you can revert the area to what it was hundreds of years ago, but it only applies to a certain area surrounding the stone. Basically, time travel as an area of effect. And they go all out, coming up with so many different puzzles and obstacles in both the overworlds and the dungeons and just use that concept to the absolute fullest in terms of puzzles and obstacles (though not story of course). 
Skyward Sword makes a few very honest efforts to depart from the classic Zelda formula. You will often find the villain creating a monster from the surrounding area to fight you, such as fusing a boulder and lava into a monster or animating an ancient statue. There are two times in a dungeon where he will just outright fight you himself. For the first three dungeons your entire goal is to find Zelda, who is actually on her own quest separate and different from your own and that’s what’s at the end of the dungeons. At the end of each of them, you get an increasingly important cutscene, culminating in a pretty epic, if short, fight between Ghirhahim and Zelda’s guardian.
I am getting very sick of Zelda’s last-decade approach to dialogue, though. Every single conversation with Link plays out like they’re talking to Lassie. “What? Timmy fell down the well?” “What? Your Loftwing is missing?” I just can’t stand it anymore. Either finally give Link some damn well-written text dialogue or give everyone fully voiced dialogue while keeping Link mute as always. Nintendo, use that innovation thing you won’t shut up about. And don’t give me any nonsense about how Link is silent to keep him a protagonist every player can project themselves onto. It’s not true, it never has been, and you stunt his growth as a genuine character every time you say it.  Silent he may be, but he is a full character in the same way Charlie Chaplin is. This is one of my biggest running complaints with this, my favorite video game franchise.
And now in regards to a completely new cancerous tumor on the franchise, let me be as clear as possible: ROBOTS DO NOT BELONG IN ZELDA. Now to an extent I can put up with a robot or two if done right, especially if it’s a one-shot character or a boss, like Goht (Majora’s Mask) or Gohdan (Wind Waker). Robots in Zelda, if ever, are supposed to be very rare, very sparingly, and not very advanced. It also helps if the robots are powered by magical forces, like sacred power (Gohdan) and cursed masks (Goht). But now are you honestly telling me that there was a race of advanced sentient robots with emotions and individual goals that completely died out without advancing any technology beyond the levels during Ocarina? I was at least expecting that, if this game takes place before Ocarina of Time, that they would make sure the technology of this world was believably far behind what they had access to in Ocarina. That didn’t happen AT ALL. For this and several other reasons, Skyward Sword is the most technologically advanced and most inconsistent of the series, even though chronologically it’s the first in the series.
But, onto the main story. I like that this game is focused on Link and Zelda, and the more you know about the latter, the more the title “Legend of Zelda” makes sense. They did a pretty darn good job characterizing their interactions with each other, and I feel like there’s the first genuine romance in a Zelda game. They didn’t really emphasize it later in the game, but there was plenty of it early on.
In the magical Noah’s-Ark-esque piece of floating land Skyloft, Link and childhood friend Zelda are whisked away to the dangers of the surface world of Hyrule where their destinies lie and are intertwined and such. Link obtains the Goddess Sword, a legendary sword of legendariness, which contains the robotic spirit guide named Fi. Link’s destiny is apparently to “unite with the spirit maiden.” Well I’m sure they’ll have a pleasant evening. They are kept apart by the fabulous-looking Demon Lord Ghirahim, who is chasing Zelda in hopes that he can use powers within her to unleash his master on the world and cause the apocalypse. What I loved about the story is that, coming from previous Zeldas, I kept going “I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next and I’m totally curious”.
Due to certain spoilers involving time travel, Link must empower the Goddess Sword with the flames of the three goddesses until it is forged into the ultimate evil-slaying Master Sword, which in its heightened power will allow him to continue his quest of finding Zelda, as she is now in another era of time. I will have a separate (perhaps video) review going into full details and analysis on the spoiler content of this game, but I can safely say it has a good, acceptable ending and a seriously freaking epic series of final boss fights at the sealed grounds. But, there’s a gaping problem with this actually. They killed the past version of a bad guy in the past, so nothing that happened in the game should’ve happened because this game confirms that actions in the past do in fact affect the future.
When I first met Fi, I was wiling to give her a pretty good chance. Fi, better known as Yuki Nagato from Meloncholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, is rather monotone and soulless, but that’s all right because she has incredible deductive powers, statistics and probability calculations and is always providing useful data, tips and hints. However, unlike Yuki, Fi never shuts the hell up. Oh. My. God! GIVE IT A REST! I KNOW ALREADY! I was so willing to let Fi become an interesting likable character and she blew it big time. As hard to believe as it is, she is worse than Navi by far. Navi was mostly optional. Fi, on the other hand, forces to go through every line of dialogue she has to say on everything, and there were many MANY times when all she was saying was exactly what the person I was talking to said. I can read what that person said; I do not need to read Fi saying the exact same thing in the very next line of dialogue.
But to be fair, she is an interesting concept, she has a cool design, I don’t have a huge problem with the fake voice, she was actually helpful from time to time, I love that they finally have enemy information back, and every now and then she said something funny. Like the cursed Bokoblins. Or dialogue with Scrapper. But was it worth it? Absolutely not. All good was drowned out by the annoyance.
But the ones who stole the show were Ghirahim and the final boss. When I first saw the design of Ghirahim I absolutely hated him. Does he even look like someone you’d call a Demon Lord? I thought I wouldn’t take him seriously. But to an extent I was wrong. Ghirahim outright says from the second dungeon that his goal is reviving his master. It is very good that he say this early on, because Zelda has a really bad history of villains being used only to resurrect or release Ganondorf. I was kind of okay with Aganhim and Vaati doing it, but the way they did it with Zant was just awful and an out of nowhere random villain change. But with Ghirahim he never hides the fact he works for a higher power. To revive his master he needs to kidnap Zelda. He’s arrogant and overconfident that during the early encounters with Link he’s just messing with him. Better yet, he’s not just having fun; he is actually using his fights against Link as a form of stress relief. Ghirahim gets bummed out whenever Zelda slips through his grasp. He has a lot of rage that he’s trying to hold back and he’s taking it out on Link.
And last, but not least, we arrive at the Legend of Groose. I’m not going to give it away, so I pretty much can’t say a damn thing about him. But let me just say I’m so glad they put him in here and he is my favorite character in this game. 

Speaking of minor characters, they are the source of the main extras in this game: gratitude crystal sidequests. Once again, I dare not spoil the first appearance of Batreaux and what he’s about, but trust me when I say Gratitude Crystals are for quite an interesting cause. Basically, sidequests that would grant you a piece of heart in other Zelda games, instead grant you these and the more you get the bigger size wallets you get.
There are also minigames of course. Bug Heaven gets you money for collecting bugs in a fenced off sky island, you can play the harp in a bar for adoring fans, and clean cut lets you slash apart a tall bamboo with as many cuts as possible with the Wiimote. Sadly, those ones don’t get you a piece of heart so I didn’t really bother except for that last one. The ones that do include a bow shooting game, a minecart riding challenge, and of course, Dodoh’s High Dive. You skydive into rings for rupee multipliers and try to hit a pad that maximizes what size/value of rupee you get. This was incredibly addicting, though I only hit it big one or two times.
Then there’s also the Thunder Dragon’s Lightning Round, which allows you to enter the silent realm for rupees and upgrade treasures or go through every boss fight for massive amounts of rupees, a piece of heart, and the unbreakable Hylian Shield. Oh and you can’t use any potions during any of the boss fights so you kind of have to wing it. That was both fun and challenging, and once again I’m glad Zelda is doing both of those more. And of course there’s also Upgrades, which I’ve already discussed and Hero Mode, which I haven’t tried yet, but will on my eventual replay a few months from now.

Final Thoughts
Because I will absolutely play Skyward Sword again in the future. It is a gem as worthy as any other in the Zelda franchise, and as I’ve said before I reluctantly believe it is the best Zelda game created thus far. Some long-awaited good Wii controls (mostly, mainly the sword), an upgrade system, more difficulty than Zelda is used to, entertaining villains, likable and developed characters, interesting story structure and flow, and one of the best final acts in all of Zelda. It’s held back by some rare but grueling cartoony pandering (which was NOT a problem in Wind Waker), character models that can’t be taken seriously, poor and inconsistent story lore (especially the damn robots), and transportation that can’t be controlled worth a damn. The sword controls and effort into the story made it rise above all other Zelda games, but I can’t possibly ignore their bland dungeon design and the most annoying sidekick character in any game I’ve ever played. I would prefer Omochao from Sonic. I am dead serious.
Skyward Sword raises the Legend of Zelda franchise to new standards and sets the bar considerably higher for the next console release that will inevitably follow it. But there’s a lot of crap in there too that would really tick me off if they didn’t change in the next one. Cut the casual gamer pandering crap and the inconsistent technology, and add more magic, mysticism, castable spells, and sacred aspects.
Also, Nintendo needs to change their strategy when it comes to making Zelda games. They have openly admitted (because they should be ashamed) that they develop the core gameplay first and the story last. But what amazes me is that in terms of, for lack of a better term, last-minute story-telling these are the stories they come up with. Then that makes me wonder if Nintendo decided to put whatever insanely genius story-teller they have to work on the story first if they would suddenly find themselves light years beyond the writers at Bioware (who usually make great stories in games).
It’s a damn shame that Skyward Sword came out this year. Because if it came out during the 2006 holiday during the first lineup of Wii games instead of that piece of crap waste of time and everything else Twilight Princess the Wii might have been a far better system, or at least more popular with the hardcore gamers who have long since abandoned ship. And I assure you if they gave it enough effort this game was certainly possible back then. The only new technology here is the Wii Motion Plus, and the Wiimote should’ve had this kind of accuracy back in 2006. But the Wii U is on the horizon, and the only other Wii game anyone can look forward to is Fortune Street. Skyward Sword is a defiant last stand on a dying system, when it should’ve been a powerhouse of new technology 5 years ago. Nintendo is too late, and I’m sure many Wii games could’ve learned how to be more awesome from Skyward Sword.
Oh well.

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